Amid all the craziness of this flipped-upside-down Chicago Blackhawks vs. Vancouver Canucks series, it only seems right that it comes down to Roberto Luongo in Game 7.
It doesn’t really matter that he’s looking more nervous than a high school kid before a first date. The Blackhawks’ psychological edge is growing with each crippling win – whether those victories come in blowouts or overtime shockers – but this is one of those moments when a highly paid player needs to earn his money. To extend the analogy, Luongo is now that unemployed post-grad who needs to get his head out of the clouds and just get the job done.
The Vancouver Canucks might not be comfortable with this situation, but they must live and die with their $10 million franchise goalie on Tuesday night. Alain Vigneault announced that he will start Game 7 and also said that the team told him he’d start that decisive game even before they went with Cory Schneider in Game 6.
Fair or not, a win or loss in Game 7 will have an enormous impact on Luongo’s potential Hall of Fame legacy.
He’s had an oddball career up this point. After being chosen fourth overall in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders, Luongo had a falling out with team management and was eventually traded to the Florida Panthers in 2000. He was rightly described as a hidden gem in Florida for five seasons, putting up outstanding numbers despite a heavy workload and facing a ridiculous amount of shots (including an NHL record 2,488 in 2005-06 and 2,475 in 03-04).
Luongo “escaped” from Florida after that 05-06 season in another comically one-sided trade that sent him to Vancouver in an exchange that included Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld.
Since then, his reputation has hit some interesting peaks and valleys. He became an unofficial captain during the 2009-10 season, an outside-the-box move that ultimately backfired. Luongo won a gold medal with Team Canada in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics after Martin Brodeur faltered. After years of carrying an awful team, Luongo now benefits from an elite supporting cast while sporadically receiving blame for his team’s worst defeats.
Make no mistake about it, though. This troubling rivalry against the Blackhawks is almost growing into a complex at this point.
Vigneault was at least half-correct when he said “He’s been on the big stage before, he’ll be fine.” Luongo is accustomed to big-time pressure, but judging from the last two starts and one ill-fated relief appearance, it’s tough to argue that he’s truly “fine.”
Yet the Hollywood scriptwriters in all of us want to see how he responds, even if the collective blood pressure of the Canucks fan base will suffer. Ultimately, Luongo might not be able to totally mute his naysayers with a big performance, but a win would help him at least turn the volume down.
That’s because win or lose, Game 7’s have a tendency to amplify things.